Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sat down with The Michigan Daily in the Michigan Union on Friday morning while in Ann Arbor to sign the second bill repealing the state’s “tampon tax,” a term referring to the state’s value-added tax on menstrual products. In the interview, Whitmer discussed efforts to increase gender equity in Michigan, the importance of student political involvement and her vision for state-wide improvements in education, child care and infrastructure. 

The Michigan Daily: Yesterday, you signed a bill repealing the state’s tax on menstrual products, and you’re here today signing similar legislation. What kind of message do you hope to send, and how do you think it will benefit Michiganders? 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: (Twenty-three) other states do not collect sales tax on tampons and pads. Michigan has though, and so for 10 years we’ve been trying to change this law. I actually was the author of it a couple of times in the legislature. Rebekah Warren, who used to represent Ann Arbor, was one of the first authors of it. 

I never dreamed that it would take this long to get done, number one, and number two, that I’d be the one who’s signing it. But I’m thrilled because we know that the purchase of these essential items is not discretionary. It’s an absolute essential need, and when we tax it, we disproportionately hurt women and girls in Michigan, and that’s why it’s so important that we eliminate this tax: So anyone who mentrautes in the state of Michigan now will not have to pay this additional burden. 

People spend thousands of dollars (on menstrual products) over the course of a lifetime. This is a meaningful improvement in terms of the bottom line for people like my daughters and me, all of us who menstruate. 

TMD: Michigan is only the 23nd state to repeal the tax on menstrual products, while 28 more haven’t done so. What would you say to the other states that are continuing to tax these products as luxury goods? 

Whitmer: What I’ve said to past legislatures who wouldn’t get the bill passed is that there is an extra burden on women, and we should alleviate it. So other states should as well. But this is something that we can boast in Michigan. We’re going to have a day of action in 90 days, when this goes into effect, where we’re going to encourage people to buy these products and give them to (shelters). 

TMD: After you recently vetoed a bill that would institute voter ID requirements, Secure MI Vote has begun work circulating a petition to implement these requirements without your approval. How would you anticipate students being affected by these efforts?

Whitmer: We had a historic election in 2020. We had huge turnout. It was a fair and safe election despite all of these false narratives that are out there, all of these attacks on our electoral system, and it worked. The results reflected the will of the people, and that’s what our democracy is all about. 

Usually, the person who doesn’t win an election goes back and tries to change how they communicate, change what they focus on, and earn the support of the masses. Instead, the Republican reaction to the outcome of last year’s election is to cut people who validly voted of the ability to vote by creating barriers by making it more difficult. 

This is absolutely undermining our democracy, and it’s trying to turn over an election that was fair and full and has been litigated to the nth degree. They’re trying to cheat, and I’m not going to let it happen on my watch. So I’m going to veto any additional threat to our electoral system that is designed to make it harder for people to vote, including students. 

We’ve recently made it easier for students to vote when we amended our Constitution. It used to be that you had to vote in-person for your first election. That had a disparate impact on younger voters, so I’m not going to let any additional threats and any additional hardship happen. I want to make it easier for students to vote, because I think students have the longest interest in outcomes of elections and they need to be able to vote. 

TMD: What would be the one piece of advice that you have for students who want to pursue a career in public service, but might be discouraged by the current political climate? 

Whitmer: Don’t get discouraged. Don’t tune out. Right now is the time to tune in. Any students who are interested should jump in and either work on a campaign or run for office themselves. 

Now, younger people have a tendency to think that they don’t quite have the credentials to run. That’s baloney. I encourage young people to get out there and to run for office. And if that’s not for you, and it’s not for everybody, get active in a campaign or to get active in a cause, because whether it’s climate change, or it is women’s reproductive choice, or it is the cost of higher education, there are important issues that are at risk every single day in this climate, and students need to be active. 

TMD: Michigan has over $3 billion in American Rescue Plan surplus funding that the state is allocating towards child care, small businesses, infrastructure and education. How do you see the planned investments impacting the greater Ann Arbor area? 

Whitmer: Michiganders tell me all the time that the things that matter really are those fundamentals. Is your child getting the kind of education that they need to be prepared to get into a good-paying field of work that they’re going to like too? Are we supporting our incredible institutions of higher learning? 

We’re sitting on the campus of one of the finest institutions on the planet. I had to battle to make sure that we got enough resources for the University of Michigan, because the legislature wasn’t real thrilled about mask mandates or vaccine requirements. We cannot let any political disagreements undermine our ability to ensure that we’ve got these incredible institutions and that they thrive and that there’s opportunity for all to attend them. 

Whether it’s daycare, or it’s the chance to get access to health care, these are the fundamentals that Michigan families are focused on. That’s where I spend all of my energy, and certainly that’s true for everyone in Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor in particular. 

TMD: How do you see higher education changing long-term because of COVID-19, and what will the state do to support colleges and universities through that transition, specifically in terms of funding? What is the state doing to make higher education more accessible to people across Michigan? 

Whitmer: It’s important to acknowledge that our institutions of higher education have been really an integral part of our efforts to keep people safe in Michigan. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on all of us — we’ve all been through a lot together. But the leaders on these campuses have really done incredible work to educate the public and to show we can resume normal things wearing a mask, getting vaccinated and how much promise there is in the science behind how we’d beat this virus. 

The budget that I signed into law had a 5% increase in terms of dollars that we’ve allocated to higher education. I’m really proud of that — it’s much better than we thought it was going to be in the debate with the legislature. And so it’s my hope that this additional investment will go toward helping make sure that it’s affordable for more students to have access to a path like into the University of Michigan. They’ve made great strides, but there’s more work to do in that space.  

TMD: PFAS levels in Ann Arbor’s water supply have continued to increase, reaching 33.8 parts per million last fall, which is the highest level on record. What is your administration doing to help remedy the situation?

Whitmer: We’ve put a lot of work into cleaning up water in Michigan. And one of the things that we are doing to a much greater degree than other states in the country is that we’re testing. Whether it’s what happened in Flint, or it is our detection of PFAS in a number of different places in Michigan, we are ahead of where other states are in terms of testing. We’ve aggressively been doing that, and that’s a good thing. 

When other states start doing that, though, we’re going to find that there is PFAS in a lot more places than people think there is. If you don’t know, it is a dangerous situation. That’s why we’re working so hard to make sure we really have an understanding of how vast the problem is. We’ve put a lot of resources into remediating PFAS, and we’re working to hold the polluters accountable. So there’s a lot of different facets to this work. 

But the scope of it is big, and it’s not unique to one community and one state. This is a nationwide problem that we have with this chemical that is a forever chemical. And so we’ve got to keep pressing forward. We’ve gotta take it seriously, and we’ve got to prioritize this in terms of our budget. 

TMD: People often talk about Michigan during elections as a swing state. Why else do you think candidates running for office should be invested in the interests of the state and Michiganders?  

Whitmer: The state of Michigan is reflective of the nation. That’s why the whole world looks to Michigan during national elections. We are a microcosm of this country. We are still very divided as a nation, and I think that’s true in the state of Michigan too. But what unites us is the desire to have a good quality of life, to be able to raise a family, to be able to retire and live to a high standard of living here in Michigan. 

All of that is dependent on the fundamentals, whether it’s fixing roads, or it is providing daycare options, or it is creating good-paying jobs and paths to skills that lead to them. That’s the fundamentals. That’s the Michigan dream. That’s been the reality in our state for a long period of time. But that’s why the work that happens, whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or in Lansing, needs to focus on how do we break through the barriers that are keeping Michiganders from realizing that. 

We’re making great progress here — it’d be great if the nation’s capital would as well. They are on the cusp of maybe doing some big legislation in the coming days around infrastructure and around child care and around family leave. I’m hopeful that they can get it done, because that would be a great way to build on what we’ve already done here in Michigan. 

TMD: We know that you’re a Michigan State fan through and through, but what’s your favorite thing about Ann Arbor?

Whitmer: I’ve got my Michigan pin on! One day out of the year we don’t agree, but otherwise I say “Go Blue” 364 days out of the year. I love Ann Arbor. The most important thing, of course, is the people here. I love engaging with students here. I think that this is a really phenomenal community, and I’m really proud to have my daughters as Wolverines. 

Daily News Editor Emma Ruberg contributed reporting.

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu